The History of Washing Clothes: How Did People Do Laundry Before Machines?

How did people wash clothes before washing machines? It's hard to imagine. Read about the history of laundry to appreciate modern machines of today.

Laundry Before Washing Machines: How Did People Wash Clothes?

A lot can be said about how we washed clothing before machines. To answer this question involves delving into the history of washing clothes. Way before the invention of washing machines, people went down to the river and made use of the power of the current to wash their dirty laundry. They loosened the dirt by trampling on the clothing, beating it against a rock or through vigorous scrubbing.

At the time, people would make use of clean water to get their clothes clean. They merely soaked the clothes, pounded the garments, then rinsed it in the water.

Later on, folks realized that they could speed up the process by adding certain substances in the water.

How did laundry evolve over the years?

The whole idea of washing laundry in a nearby river stemmed from ancient Egypt where the cleaning procedure involved stamping on the clothes.

During a later stage, thanks to Roman ingenuity, these guys took the whole laundry washing concept to an unprecedented scale. They exchanged the river washing practices for large vats that were filled with lye, whitewash, and even urine with water. The clothing would be stamped on, wrung out, and rinsed in clean water.

That is revolting right if you consider modern-day hygiene practices. Why would anyone want to wash their clothing in urine? Well, it contains ammonia, which was deemed an essential cleaning agent at the time in Medieval Europe. They even used it to get rid of stains and dissolve grease.

Later on, people made use of beaters and paddles to get their clothes clean. As you can imagine, the invention of soap led to a giant step forward and the introduction of washboards that were manufactured out of glass, metal, stone, wood, and fired clay.

The Rise of the Washing Machine: How were washers invented?

It was only during the mid-18th century in the U.K. that Stender introduced the first washing machine. Later on, his attempts encouraged an American called Hamilton-Smith to design the drum washer where laundry was moved by a blade.

Then in 1790, another Englishman Beetman put together a washing machine that made use of a current of water. None of the experiments mentioned over here achieved practical application. It wasn’t until the 19th century when machines were used in hospitals and laundry facilities.

Right from the start, the washing machines operated in a semi-cylindrical fashion and involved the use of washboards that agitated itself against a lathed grate on the bottom of the machine. The laundry got rubbed between these two boards until it was clean. No doubt, more delicate fabrics were damaged because of the high mechanical strain placed on them.

This is why modifications were made to the frictional surfaces to prevent clothing from being worn out too soon. It became evident that one could just swirl the water and make use of better quality soap to achieve the same results.

Washing machines of yesteryear were made of wood while the gears were made of metal. Therefore, most of the machines were manufactured in wood workshops at home.

Later on, as the popularity of washing machines and newer methods of getting our laundry clean were developed, specialized companies got involved in the designing process. The first company that comes to mind is Hobza that made a washing machine under the brand name IDEAL during 1904. They enjoyed much interest from the Austro-Hungarian community, Romania, and Russia.

The invention of automated washing processes was a massive improvement on the washing procedures that involved the use of dolly-tubs and wooden washtubs where clothes got beaten and stirred using a plunger.

What is more, the entire process was very labor-intensive and physically demanding on the washerwomen. They had to make use of a pre-wash, soak the clothing, reheat the lye and made use of rinsing and drying process. The entire procedure took up to 15 hours.

At the beginning stages of automated washing machines, water got heated from below in the same way you would heat an olden day stove. But, in time to come, electricity was introduced, then spin dryers replaced wringers.

How have modern washing machines made life better?

Thankfully, automatic washing machines and dryers made life as we know it today a heck of a lot easier. Time will tell what kind of inventions will come our way and how we will wash our clothes in the future.

Resources— Metzke Museum, Scrubba